Vague language leaves readers with too many questions, unsure about what the author is describing or explaining. Imprecise language also tends to be bland compared to a well-written narrative. Precise yet vivid language creates a clearer picture of the scene in readers’ minds. The difference between the two can be compared to the difference between looking through a wet, dirty textured glass window and looking through a dry, clean plate glass window. Brevity may often be lauded as the “soul of wit,” but only if the writer hasn’t sacrificed clarity and imagination in the process.
Read through your manuscript out loud and try to put yourself in the mind of a fresh reader who doesn’t have any background information, doesn’t know what’s going to happen later, and is reading it for the first time. When you refer to a character or location, will your reader know who or where you’re talking about? Will they have to reread a few pages to find out? Will they just have to remain in the dark and hopefully make the connection later?
Below are six examples of both fiction and nonfiction narrative that is vague or confusing. Possible questions the author might address to clarify the content are listed next. Following the questions for each example, the content is rewritten in more specific and expressive language.
She reached down to grab a pot and fill it with water.
Questions the author might address: Was the pot on the floor or in the cupboard? What type of pot was it? How big was it? Did she fill it from the faucet or a water bottle?
Rewritten: She bent down to pull open the cupboard door and reached in to grasp the handle of a medium-sized pot. She carried it to the sink and twisted the faucet handle to run the cold water.
I saw the kitten go up to my new boss and lick him. Nick took him to the kitchen.
Questions the author might address: How did the kitten go up to Nick (new boss)? How did Nick react? What else did Nick do?
Rewritten: Out of the corner of my eye, I barely caught a glimpse of the tiny black shadow that streaked across the floor to slide comically into a heap in front of my new employer. Nick’s face lit up and he bent down to scoop up the kitten, who was now purring furiously and trying to lick any part of his human that he could reach. Chuckling, Nick carried him into the kitchen, setting his laptop case down on a chair, and a few pieces of mail on the dining table.
After pressing the numbers, I heard the lock click, then went inside. I entered the wrong code, then did it right, and disabled the alarm.
Questions the author might address: How many numbers were in the code? Did she enter the code inside or outside or both? How much time did she have to enter it correctly? How did she know the code was wrong? How did she react?
Rewritten: After pressing each of the six numbers carefully, I heard the lock click, then grasped the curved handle. I pushed the door open then closed it behind me. A duplicate keypad was on the far wall of the foyer, and I crossed quickly to enter the same code within ninety seconds to disarm the alarm. After screwing it up the first time, the keypad flashed red accusingly at me. Anticipating the blaring alarm, ready to cover my ears, I cursed and entered the code correctly.
When I read the scene that takes place at the ball, I picture the ballroom, dancers, and musicians in my mind. Everything is beautiful and I wish I was there.
Questions the book reviewer might address: What does this ballroom look like? How can this beautiful scene be described in more detail? How does it make the reviewer feel? Why should readers care?
Rewritten: When I read the scene that takes place at the ball, it transports me to a fanciful ballroom, where I find myself gliding effortlessly around to a waltz, in the arms of a debonair, masterful dancer. The décor is fabulous and twinkly, and the ladies’ gowns are voluminous and dreamy. The musicians are flawless, and the sonatas and concertos surround us. Time is suspended, and cares float away.
Unsurprisingly, the discovery of this diagnosis allowed physicians to label women as unfit to handle stress—an argument to limit their exposure to work or education.
Questions the author might address: Did the doctors say that women were unable to handle any amount of stress? What type of diagnosis is being discussed? Was the argument actually used in this way or was it only intended to be used in this way?
Rewritten: Unsurprisingly, the discovery of this new, universal diagnosis allowed physicians to label women as unfit to handle excessive stress—an argument exploited to limit their exposure to work or education.
Today, twenty-seven percent of all funding for energy R&D is spent on nuclear energy.
Questions the author might address: Was the funding by the US, a group of countries, or worldwide? Was it federal or private funding? What timeframe is the statistic from?
Rewritten: In 2016, twenty-seven percent of U.S. federal funding for energy R&D was spent on nuclear energy.